The Progressive Nonargument Against Biden

Media elites aren’t talking about his electability or his policy proposals.

Joe Biden holding a baby

Although Joe Biden leads in the polls, he is opposed by many of the progressive opinion-makers who exercise disproportionate influence in the press, social media, think tanks, and academia. They don’t tend to attack his electability, and only rarely discuss what he is likely to do in office in comparison to Democratic rivals. Instead, they’re obsessed with how he presents himself and his ideas, which they characterize as “problematic.”

Early on, they cited the way he hugged and kissed strangers. While not predatory, he can be awkwardly handsy and intimate, many major media outlets reported.

Last month, Biden said that while he “didn’t agree on much of anything” with two segregationist Democrats who were in the Senate when he joined it, “at least there was some civility. We got things done.” The backlash was immediate. Talk of civil political compromise with racists, even on matters other than race, isn’t the sort of thing a respectable Democrat says in 2019.

Senator Cory Booker, one of his rivals for the nomination, said, “Frankly, I’m disappointed that he hasn’t issued an immediate apology for the pain his words are dredging up for many Americans.”

Another rival, Senator Kamala Harris, who sought to gain ground against the former vice president when the Democrats debated last month in Miami, used the remarks to launch a broader attack:

It was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States Senators who built their reputations and career on segregation of race in this country. And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing. And you know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bused to school every day, and that little girl was me.

Booker found that powerful.

“I literally leaned back in my couch and couldn’t believe that one moment,” he told CNN. “I think that anybody that knows our painful history knows that on voting rights, on civil rights, on the protections from hate crimes, African Americans and many other groups in this country have had to turn to the federal government to intervene because there were states that were violating those rights.”

That history is painful and important. Many Americans still underestimate the ongoing need for federal protection of civil rights against state and local governments.

But wait a minute.

Hearing Booker, you might think that Biden has opposed federal interventions to protect voting rights, civil rights, and victims of hate crimes. In fact, Biden has long supported an expansive federal role in all three areas and voted in 2001 to add sexual orientation to the protected categories in federal hate-crime law. There’s a lot about Biden’s record to dislike. Booker remarked on an area where he’s—by liberal Democrat standards—strong.

Listening to Harris, you might think that she, unlike Biden, favors federally mandated busing as a tool to reduce segregation. “Does Harris support busing for school integration right now?” the New York Times reporter Astead W. Herndon asked Ian Sams, her campaign manager, on June 27. “Yes,” he replied.

But Harris later clarified that she does not favor federally mandated busing right now. Rather, she thinks that some school districts should consider it on a voluntary basis, and that for the most part busing is no longer necessary in America.

“It sounds here like @KamalaHarris is now taking something more like the @JoeBiden position on school busing,” said David Axelrod, a political adviser in the Obama administration. “So what was that whole thing at the debate all about?”

It wasn’t about Biden’s electability or what a President Biden would do in 2021 about busing or other federal interventions to protect civil rights (or even what he did from 2009 to 2016).

Harris and Biden disagree on whether federally mandated busing was a sound policy almost 50 years ago. They have no similar difference on federal civil-rights policy today. Would Harris necessarily be better on matters of federal civil rights than Biden? At the very least, her record as a prosecutor makes that an open question.

I don’t mean to rule out the past. Biden’s vote in favor of the Iraq War ought to count against him––but that’s in part because it is relevant to what he might do if urged to launch a future war of choice against a foreign adversary. It makes no sense for Democrats to focus so intensely on busing, an issue with these characteristics:

  • Absent from every list of voter priorities
  • Backward-looking
  • Unlikely to come before the next president
  • No difference in the current positions of candidates
  • “Debate” largely focused on demands for apologies

I think I know what’s going on here. Anti-Biden progressives earnestly believe he’s too centrist (even if they have agreed with his past policies and would likely agree with many of his future policies), but they also know, on some level, that the rank and file are centrist as well and, furthermore, associate centrism with electability.

So they publicize Biden’s supposed failures of respectability.

Like a Fox News anchor forever focusing on Senator Elizabeth Warren’s claims of Native American ancestry, anti-Biden progressives betray their inability to make a persuasive substantive case by trying to preemptively disqualify him as too problematic: Vote Harris or Warren––Biden is too cringeworthy to be the nominee.

Progressives could, I’m sure, mount a strong case against Biden, but it wouldn’t include his fundraiser comments or his 1970s stance on busing. Democrats focus intraparty debate on such backward-looking conflicts at their peril in a country full of voters most interested in how the next president will affect their lives.